International Women’s Day a Powerful Platform

Sunday 8 March 2009

The Canberra Times:

SINGLING out women and their achievements: are we over it? Have we moved on from women’s emancipation in the early 1900s, or the post-war feminist push of the ’60s and ’70s?

More often in these enlightened times, highlighting a person’s achievement or actions because they are a woman can prove irritating. The constant reminder that Anna Bligh might be the first female actually voted in as a premier of a state being one. So what? We have many women leaders past and present. (Rosemary Follet was voted chief minister of the ACT many years before, as were Clare Martin of the Northern Territory and Kate Carnell, again, in the ACT. But are their achievements any less because they were living in the territories?)

One would expect the gender of a successful, or notorious, person should not be a headline. So logically, is dedicating a day to women today is International Women’s Day perhaps now obsolete?

Some would argue that IWD in its current politically correct form has trivialised deep-rooted inequalities and given a respectability to a day which thus undermines its impact and origins.

Others, still, would suggest women are sending too many mixed messages to one another for IWD to have any real cohesion sleep with your husband whether you like it or not, work full-time, work part-time, have a career, have babies but don’t send them to child care.

But it only takes a step back in time to understand the almost mythical importance of International Women’s Day. It has fostered massive change, not only for women, but for children, the underprivileged and victims of discrimination. It has been used to mark great achievements of individuals and groups and it has sparked revolutions.

The first official day began in 1911, with rallies held in Germany and a number of other European countries. The focus, a woman’s right to vote. One of the early and most famous rallies was held in Petrograd (today’s St Petersburg) in 1917. In a Russia suffering from World WarI hardship, workers at the city’s largest industrial plant announced a strike and were later fired. The next day, on International Women’s Day, demonstrations erupted and women stormed the streets, rioting and protesting over increasingly appalling living conditions. Their actions led to the first revolution in 1917.

In Australia in 1928, the first IWD rally in the Domain in Sydney called for equal pay for equal work, basic wages for unemployed and annual holidays on full pay.

These issues continued to dominate IWDs through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Pioneering protests singled out child-welfare victims demanding an end to family violence, virginity testing, poor accommodation and lack of general education and work training.

By the mid ’70s, IWD was gaining sponsorship from governments and in 1975 the United Nations declared the start of the International Decade for Women. That year saw some of the largest rallies in the day’s history.

In 1982, IWD was memorably marked in Iran when women defied the law and discarded their veils. But even in its revolutionary infancy, IWD was not without discord: the women’s movement is not homogenous. There will always be a diverse range of views, political and social, on the evolution and future of women’s rights.

However, as a trigger for real social and political change, IWD has been and can continue to be a powerful platform.

Its achievements cannot be forgotten or taken for granted. And while, according to CARE Australia, 60 per cent of the world’s poorest are female, 10 million more girls than boys do not attend primary school, and violence against women kills and injures as many women as cancer, International Women’s Day continues to be a relevant and vital point of reference for liberation.


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